It seems like plastic is almost everywhere. But it turns out to be hazardous to your health and your planet. Get the facts, and find out how you can take action to solve the plastic problem and cut back on your use of single-use plastics.
From bags to food containers to car parts, plastic is a significant part of our day-to-day lives. Global production of plastic has been nearly doubling every decade. But experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of plastic on the environment — and on human health.
How harmful is plastic? And what about plastic bans? Do they work? Or are there better ways to tackle plastic pollution?
And what can you do as an individual to protect yourself from harm and to help solve the plastic problem?
What Is Plastic?
There are seven main types of plastic, each used for different purposes. They’re labeled with numbered codes, helping you determine which kind of plastic you’re dealing with and if you can recycle it.
Though the first plastics were once natural products (used as far back as 3,500 years ago), almost all plastics today are man-made and derived from fossil fuels, including crude oil and natural gas.
Scientists have also created new forms of plastics made from renewable materials — known as biopolymers or bioplastics.
Bioplastics: Plastics Made from Plants and Other Natural Materials
Bioplastics are made from natural sources, including vegetable fats/oils, corn starch, straw, wood chips, and even food waste.
While bioplastics are typically considered more environmentally-friendly than traditional plastics, they aren’t a catch-all solution. Many still end up in landfills, and as more come on the market, there are issues with land use, proper disposal, and toxicity.
Researchers are currently working on bioplastics that are compostable, degradable in water (should they end up in the ocean), and non-toxic. Though promising solutions are in development (such as bioplastic straws made from avocado and bioplastic coffee cups made from potato starch, corn starch, and cellulose — the main component of plant cell walls), they aren’t yet widely available.
How Plastic Became Part of Everyday Life
Before synthetic plastics took over, products were usually packaged with natural materials, such as wood, glass, metal, or paper.
After World War II, plastic became a popular material for everything from nylons to packaging to food wrap.
Throwaway plastic was convenient, cheap, and human-made, and there was a seemingly endless supply.
Unfortunately, few people were thinking of the long-term consequences of creating so much trash, or how plastic might affect the human body.
And Now, Plastic Is More Popular Than Ever
World production of plastic has increased exponentially over the decades.
Here are some striking facts about the rise in plastic use — and subsequent waste:
- Plastic production increased from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 162 million tons in 1993 to 448 million tons in 2015.
- As of 2015, humans had created more than 6.9 billion tons of plastic trash. What has happened to all that plastic? About 12% of plastic trash has been incinerated, while 79% has ended up in landfills, the ocean, or other environmental sites. Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. It’s expected that it will take at least 400 years for the plastic we’ve already created to break down.
- A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum warned that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by weight. Right now, our oceans contain more than five trillion pieces of plastic. Many fish and marine mammals die when they ingest plastic. Research suggests that the total economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem caused by plastic is at least $13 billion every year.
How Does Plastic Harm Human Health?
Research has found that many chemicals used in plastic production can cause health problems for humans.
Many plastics, for example, contain a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA.
When BPA is used in food or beverage containers, not all of the chemical gets sealed into the product. Some of it leaches out — especially when exposed to heat or sunlight. The primary source of human exposure to BPA is through packaged foods and drinks.
BPA is a known hormone disruptor and strongly linked to a number of diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, cancer, infertility, low sperm count, liver problems, and ADHD.
What About BPA-Free Plastics?
As news started coming out about the dangers of BPA, many manufacturers began phasing this nasty chemical out of their products. At first, that seemed like a good thing.
But when the National Institutes of Health funded research on BPA-free plastics, researchers found that “almost all” commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens — even when the plastics weren’t exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave oven, the steam of a dishwasher, or the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
According to this NIH-funded study, some BPA-free plastic products released synthetic estrogens that were even more potent than BPA.
The bottom line: BPA plastics are dangerous to your health. And it seems likely that most BPA-free plastics offer little, if any, improvement.
Another Plastic Problem: Some Humans Are Eating It
Another significant health issue involves the direct ingestion of plastic by consumers, thanks to the quantity of plastic now adrift in the ocean.
Fish and other invertebrates are eating microplastics (broken down pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long) by the ton.
Smaller fish, like sardines, eat this plastic, and then they’re eaten by larger fish. When fish become seafood, the tiny bits of plastic (and associated toxins) make their way into the mouths and bodies of consumers.
This problem has led some scientists to start calling the ocean a “plastic soup.”
A 2015 study published in the journal IOPScience estimated that in 2014, the number of microplastics in the ocean ranged from 15 to 51 trillion pieces, weighing between 93,000 and 236,000 metric tons.
Plastic Bans Are Happening Around the World
As awareness about the many problems with plastic has spread, bans on single-use plastics are being put into place by companies, cities, and even whole countries.
Two products have been the focus of most of these bans: plastic bags and plastic straws.
Plastic Bag Bans Are Spreading
Plastic bags were the first to face widespread criticism.
In 2007, San Francisco banned single-use plastic bags. Then in 2016, the entire state of California followed suit. By 2024, Colorado will have their plastic bag (and foam container) ban in place.
Boston, Portland, New York, and Seattle have also banned single-use plastic bags. And many cities, including Chicago and Washington, DC, have enacted fees for use of recycled paper or plastic bags.
Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, some cities have temporarily suspended their plastic bag bans or fees. To check the status of plastic bags in your city, visit Bag the Ban’s plastic bag legislation map or check your city government’s website.
Other countries have also begun to ban plastics, and some impose stiff fines or penalties.
- In Kenya as of 2017, anyone who’s found using, producing, or selling a plastic bag faces up to four years in jail or a $40,000 fine. According to The Guardian, the strict ban is proving effective: “Waterways are clearer, the food chain is less contaminated with plastic — and there are fewer ‘flying toilets’.”
- As of last year, Zimbabwe has banned expanded polystyrene (EPS), a styrofoam-like material used for food containers. Fines for violations run between $30 and $5,000.
- In Australia, there are statewide bans on single-use plastic bags in South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory.
- In 2015, France banned plastic bags, and in 2016, it extended the ban to plastic cups, plates, and cutlery to be fully rolled out by 2020.
- Starting in 2002, the Irish government put a $.15-per-bag, plastic bag consumption tax in place. According to BBC News, it has cut use back by 90% and raised millions of Euros in revenue.
- Currently, the European Commission is proposing a ban on 10 single-use plastic items including forks and knives, straws, and plates.
In total, more than 60 countries have enacted plastic bans and/or fees in order to cut down on plastic waste, and many more are likely to follow soon.
Anti-Straw Sentiment Is Heating Up
Straws are the latest plastic product to receive negative attention.
The focus on straws largely began with a viral video in which a marine biologist removed a straw from a sea turtle’s nose. You can watch the video here. (Warning: Video contains adult language.)
Because straws are so lightweight, they frequently get sorted out during the recycling process and end up in waterways.
In response to growing public outcry, some companies are starting to willingly cut back or eliminate single-use plastics, particularly straws:
- Starbucks recently announced that it will eliminate all plastic straws and replace them with “adult sippy cup” lids by 2020. The coffee giant estimated that the switch will cut waste back by one billion plastic straws globally per year, most of which ends up in landfills and the ocean.
- In June, Ikea committed to phasing out all single-use plastic products in its stores and restaurants by 2020. This includes disposable plastic straws, plates, and garbage bags.
- Even McDonald’s is making changes. In its UK restaurants, the chain has started using paper straws and eventually plans to make all of its packaging recyclable.
Plastic Bags and Straws: Are These Single-Use Plastic Bans Helping?
In recent years, much of the outcry around plastic has focused on single-use bags and straws, without as much focus on other plastic items like packaging materials and food containers.
Now, you might ask, are these really such a big issue? Can banning plastic bags and straws really help solve the waste problem?
After all, straws only make up an estimated less than 10% of the nine million tons of plastic pollution that gets into the world’s oceans annually.
But the truth is, every bit counts. And many experts argue that banning bags and straws help consumers start small when it comes to cutting back. So by focusing on eliminating these items, we can start to chip away at the larger issue of single-use plastics.
The reality is that while straw bans won’t nearly solve the whole problem, they’ll make a dent in it, while also helping educate billions of consumers.
Which brings us back to you and me.
As it turns out, we can do a lot.
9 Ways You Can Help Solve the Plastic Problem
Here are some ideas for helping solve the plastic problem by cutting back on single-use plastic:
#1 – Keep Reusable Shopping Bags in Your Car, and Use Less Single-Use Plastic
If you live in a place where grocery stores still give out plastic bags, it’s easy to fall back into using them — or to opt for paper, which has its own environmental problems.
To make it easier, keep a few reusable bags in your car so they’ll always be handy when you need to stock your fridge. The next time you’re asked, “Paper or plastic?,” you can say: “Neither! I brought my own bags.”
#2 – Reuse Your “Disposable” Bags
Whenever you do end up with plastic or paper bags, reuse them as much as possible. Take them to the store, collect recycling items in paper, or use old plastic bags for kitty litter or to line your trash bins.
In our home, if they aren’t too soiled, we rinse and air-dry our plastic, produce bags so we can reuse them when we go back to the store.
#3 – Carry Your Water Bottle Everywhere
Drinking water is wonderful, but it produces a lot of waste if you’re opting for bottled water.
Here’s a better option: Buy your own glass or stainless steel water bottle and bring it with you everywhere you go.
If you have a home filter (a lot of Food Revolution Network members love the AquaTru) you can bring clean water with you whenever you go out.
#4 – Use Glass Jars for Leftovers and Storage
Instead of plastic packaging, use glass jars and other containers to store your food.
If you start reusing glass jars from sauces and other store-bought items, you’ll have a big collection of containers in no time.
#5 – Buy in Bulk When You Can
Many stores have significant bulk buying departments, where you can stock up on flour, legumes, nuts, seeds, seasonings, dried fruit, and all kinds of other ingredients — often for a sizable discount.
Bring glass jars (pre-weighed so you don’t have to pay for the glass at checkout) or reused plastic bags from home and get exactly as much as you need.
#6 – Snag Some Stainless Steel Straws or Opt Out of Straws Altogether
Plastic straws are on the way out. If you’re a fan of drinking beverages through a straw (or if you need to drink through a straw for health reasons), you can buy some stainless steel ones to carry with you. A pack of four could last you a lifetime — and they come with a special brush for cleaning.
#7 – Skip the Fast Food
Eating fast food or takeout means creating a lot of waste. And it’s usually bad for you, too. Opt for cooking your own healthy food at home, instead. When you do decide to eat out, bring along a reusable container for leftovers.
#8 – Bring Your Own Utensils
Instead of using plastic cutlery when you do eat out (or for your homemade lunch at work), buy a portable bamboo or stainless steel utensil kit.
#9 – Read SLO Active’s Plastic Pollution Guide
SLO active, a lifestyle brand that focuses on oceanwear and activism, created an extensive guide to plastic pollution in conjunction with marine biology experts. The guide shows the true impact of plastics on our oceans and sea life. Plus, it presents ideas for reducing plastic waste when you’re out and about, or at home, and ways you can help solve the plastic problem, right now.
It’s Time To Move Beyond Plastic
Historians may one day look back at our era as the time of plastics. From building materials to food storage, and from packaging to clothing, plastic has become an almost ubiquitous part of modern life. And there’s no doubt that in some cases, it can be very useful.
But disposable plastic is creating a nightmare for the planet. And storing food and water in plastic can wreak havoc on your health.
We now have the knowledge, and the resources, to move beyond disposable and food storage plastic in our everyday lives.
Our family used to love plastic food-storage containers, but recently we bit the bullet and threw out all but a few backup plastic containers. We ordered glass and stainless-steel ones, and I’m glad we did.
Now, we store most of our food in glass containers that come with clear snap-on plastic lids. For traveling, I prefer airtight, stainless-steel containers with snap-on lids that have a silicone seal (like the kind made by Onyx) because they’re lighter and more break-proof than glass. But unless you’re Superman and have X-ray vision, you can’t see through these, which is why I prefer glass at home because it helps to keep the fridge organized so you can see your food.
The hardest place for us to ditch plastic is in the freezer. We still use plastic bags for freezing berries and some other foods — although we are experimenting with using glass and snap-on plastic lids when we freeze our own, and so far that is promising.
Whatever systems and methods work for you, what matters most is that you take action. Because the future of your health, and your world, will be impacted by the choices you make today.
Tell us in the comments:
Do you still have questions about plastic?
How are you cutting back on your plastic use?
What alternatives to plastic are working for you?